Saturday: Wish I Was Old and a Little Sentimental (p. 37-53)

Three guesses where the title came from, and the first two don’t count.

Perowne heads upstairs.

On his way to the main stairs, he pauses by the double front doors. They give straight on to the pavement, on to the street that leads to the square, and in his exhaustion they suddenly loom before him strangely with their accretions—three stout Banham locks, two black iron bolts as old as the house, two tempered steel security chains, a spyhole with a brass cover, the box of electronics that works the Entryphone system, the red panic button, the alarm pad with its softly gleaming digits. Such defences, such mundane embattlement: beware of the city’s poor, the drug-addicted, the downright bad. (p. 37)

Hello, curious word choice. Have I espied some class warfare?

He eventually comes back to bed, where his thoughts make a series of curious turns:

It’s only children, in fact, only infants who feel a wish and its fulfillment as one; perhaps this is what gives tyrants their childish air. […] Saddam, for example, doesn’t simply look like a heavy-jowled brute. He gives the impression of an overgrown, disappointed boy with a pudgy hangdog look, and dark eyes a little baffled by all that he still can’t ordain. (p. 39)

Okay, show of hands. Can anyone here name a white tyrant that could be described this way? Does Putin seem childish? Or Lukashenko? What about Berlusconi? Or Cameron? Or Cheney?

The only one I can think of is Bush II, but that’s only because he’s already an idiot in the public consciousness. No one ever called Saddam an idiot.

This is all just another display of acceptable, correct British liberalism. Armed resistances are nihilistic (or cartoonishly fundamentalist, if you’ll excuse the Christian terminology). Dictators are spoiled children. We needn’t explore the reasons why dictatorships and armed resistances exist,* nothing to see here, move along, they are all spoiled brats and that’s how it is, citizen. Anything to avoid owning up for the dumb stuff we’ve done (and are still doing) in that part of the world.

But at least there’s a certain twisted logic under there. The same cannot be said of this passage, which just plain does not make sense:

By contemporary standards, by any standards, it’s perverse that he’s never tired of making love to Rosalind, never been seriously tempted by the opportunities that have drifted his way through the generous logic of medical hierarchy. When he thinks of sex, he thinks of her. […] He suspects there’s something numbed or deficient or timid in himself. Plenty of male friends sidle into adventures with younger women; now and then a solid marriage explodes in a firefight of recrimination. Perowne watches on with unease, fearing he lacks an element of the masculine life force, and a bold and healthy appetite for experience. Where’s his curiosity? What’s wrong with him? But there’s nothing he can do about himself. […] This fidelity might look like virtue or doggedness, but it’s neither of these because he exercises no real choice. (p. 40-41)

Henry Perowne is angsting over being happily married. Let me say that again.

Henry Perowne…is angsting…over being happily married.

Is this how mid-life crises typically go? When guys in their forties become suddenly aware of their mortality do they, along with buying expensive cars, start fretting over how monogamous they’ve been? Or does this simply underscore how unbelievably good Perowne has it, that the one thing about his home life that he gets anxious over is his faithfulness to his wife?

How twee. Talk to me when you’re having mortgage problems.

The good doctor then reminisces for a while about when he first met his lovely wife, which makes up the bulk of this section. McEwan is obviously trying very hard to be sentimental and soppy, but the cold and clinical prose is failing him here. The blustering Whaley is a caricature, the fire extinguisher scene is overwrought, and the scene where the actual operation is performed is completely devoid of tension. But those aren’t the real puzzlers here. In pages 48 and 49, while on a ferry to Spain, we’re introduced to Rosalind’s late mother, Marianne Grammaticus.**

Marianne Grammaticus was not so much grieved for as continually addressed. She was a constant restraining presence, watching over her daughter, and watching with her. This was the secret of Rosalind’s inwardness and caution. […] She remained in silent contact with an imaginary intimate. She referred everything back to her mother whom she’s always first-named, even as a little girl. […] (p. 48)

News to me. You’d think she would have mentioned Marianne when she was about to go blind in the hospital.

In the ferry’s swaying cabin, on a narrow bunk, the matter was finally settled. It was not easy for Rosalind. To love him she had to relinquish her constant friend, her mother. In the morning, when she woke and remembered the line she had crossed, she cried—for joy as much as for sorrow, she kept trying unconvincingly to tell him. Happiness seemed like a betrayal of principle, but happiness was unavoidable. (p. 49)

I…what. This makes absolutely no sense to me. Why is it that the price Henry (unconsciously?) charged Rosalind in exchange for their eternal union that she let go of her mother’s memory, a thing that it is obvious she holds very dear? More importantly, how is this relevant to the plot at all?

*Someone Photoshopped the cover of A People’s History of the United States and replaced the title with White People Ruin Everything. Which should tell you all you need to know, really.
**Does the name stick out for you, too? I’m willing to suspend disbelief for names like Perowne and Whaley, really, I am. In the context of the novel, at least, they’re nice, definitively English names. (As they’re presented as nice, definitively English people, that’s kind of the point.) The surname “Grammaticus” makes me think Rosalind’s dear mother wore togas and crowns of leaves and spoke some aristocratic dialect of Latin and popped by the Forum on the regular.

What really bothers me is this intervention is staged right in the middle of pretty much the only good scene in this entire chapter. The Bilbao ferry sequence is atmospheric and emotional and intimate and what this whole section should have been. The prose is still kind of turgid, yes—I don’t need to know what the captain was wearing, especially if I can’t see him through the rain—but the scene somehow still manages to work despite all that. This was the only place where I seriously believed that, yes, Henry and Rosalind were a thing.

…and in the next section we come crashing back to grim, boring 2003. If (huge if) we were to choke down McEwan’s conscious division of time into pre- and post-9/11, the contrast works. The Bilbao ferry scene is also innocent. The scenes set in the present are specifically designed to be as not innocent as possible. The problem comes in when you remember that the Bilbao ferry scene was set in the early 80s, and necessarily you had Reagan and Thatcher and all the related Cold War awfulness churning away in the background. 1982, in reality, was no more innocent than 2003.

Before we close out this chapter, we are introduced to the Perowne’s daughter:

Sensuous, intellectual Daisy, small-boned, pale and correct. What other postgraduate aspiring poet wears short-skirted business suits and fresh white blouses, and rarely drinks and does her best work before 9 a.m.? His little girl, slipping away from him into efficient Parisian womanhood, is expecting her first volume of poems to be published in May. And not by some hand-cranked press, but a venerable institution in Queen Square[…] (p. 51)

Let us recap. Henry is an incredibly successful brain surgeon and blatant author self-insert. Rosalind is an incredibly successful Fleet Street Person who is right now involved in some big to-do at the High Court. Theo is an eighteen-year-old blues musician already spoken of—seriously, not flatteringly—as being the next Clapton. Daisy is an aspiring poet who, in her early twenties, is having a collection of poetry published by a reputable house and has somehow managed to scrounge up enough money to live on her own in phenomenally expensive Paree. The only non-superficial flaw I’ve seen from any of them involve Henry’s political and personal anxieties, but even they are of a sort specific to the gentry.

In case it wasn’t obvious, we have before us a family of insufferable Mary Sues. This is gonna suck.

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About theoditsek

I like going places.
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